It’s not hard to argue that this is the age of social media. Bloomberg discovered that by the end of 2012, Facebook celebrated over 1 billion users worldwide, meaning that one seventh of the earth’s population has at least one social media profile page. The benefits and the disadvantages of this phenomenon are numerous and complicated, but what does Facebook mean for social workers?
Social work is an area where you are constantly confronting ethical dilemmas, dealing with issues that are very personal to people without letting your own emotions impair you. It might surprise you that social media opens you up to a whole new world where new problems and new ethical dilemmas can form that you may not have even considered. These are the top areas of concern.
The Journal of Clinical Social Work says that 16 percent of social workers have been stalked by a client at least once during their career. Facebook makes stalking so much simpler than it was in the past. Your personal photos, details of your life, and even your exact whereabouts are all now accessible with features of the site, and privacy settings don’t always protect you.
Conflict with Colleagues
It’s easy for workers of any profession to get into trouble communicating with their colleagues over social media. But social workers are bound by the Code of Ethics, set forth by the National Association of Social Workers, which says you must treat colleagues with respect. A few badly-worded comments about staffers you don’t get along with, and you could find yourself facing repercussions at your organization.
The Code of Ethics talks about preventing dual relationships with clients or former clients, which is to say that social or personal relationships with clients can complicate their situation and even endanger them. When they log on to Facebook and see personal pictures of you, it may undermine the way they view you in a professional setting. Even when your clients are not stalkers, you should avoid any form of self-disclosure if you don’t want to taint their view of you.
On top of the potential for disparaging colleagues, social workers who use Facebook must be careful not to discuss or post details of their clients’ situations or what happens in a confidential setting. Any kind of gossip or making public what goes on at work could have serious repercussions and jeopardize your career. It’s easy to say you wouldn’t do that, but you never know when one inadvertent comment can be seen as inappropriate.
Many social workers, especially younger ones, are not prepared to give up their social media and in fact see the benefits of it. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have to be extra diligent about who has access to their profile. Social workers should not be posting on Facebook without full understanding of how to work privacy settings, and they should know that if a client or someone directly related to a client requests them as a friend, the best thing to do may be to refuse.
Though there are many social workers who believe that total abstinence from social media is necessary to remain professional, many more people view that as unrealistic. But it’s important for professional social workers to understand the risks and conflicts they could be exposing themselves to through Facebook. There’s no reason you can’t connect with your friends and be smart about your professional life at the same time.
Robert Neff is an avid blogger. If you want to develop a career in social work, consider earning a social work degree from an accredited program such as those offered at Case Western University.